Happiness Is a Young Gun


Pablo Escobar has been dead for more than eight years now, but he never really went away. The drug kingpin’s virtual dictatorship all but institutionalized turf-war violence in Colombia, rebuilding Medellín as a perpetual-motion machine of vendetta and counter-vengeance, manned by teenage hired killers. Lean and ruthless, Fernando Vallejo’s novel Our Lady of the Assassins depicts Medellín as a macabre all-year Carnival: Adolescent mercenaries parade by on motorbikes, drive-by shootings pile up like parking violations, and the police serve as roving custodial staff, cleaning up the corpses and not much else.

Remarkably faithful to the novel (see the book review), Barbet Schroeder’s accomplished film adaptation finds a writer, also named Fernando Vallejo (Germán Jaramillo), returning to his hometown “to die.” Upon Fernando’s arrival, a wealthy friend presents him with a bienvenido gift: the beautiful hit man Alexis (Anderson Ballesteros). Coming face to face with death reflected in the fountain of youth, Fernando promptly installs the boy in his spacious, near-empty apartment, with its panoramic view of the hateful city below. Savage and affable, Alexis appoints himself his sugar daddy’s exterminating angel, shooting a hair-trigger cab driver as well as a noisy neighbor on Fernando’s behalf, if not with his permission. “Can’t you separate thought from action?” he asks the kid, who requests a stereo and, later, a TV set, and plays them simultaneously at top volume. Fernando might well ask himself the same question: He soon tosses the infernal stereo over the balcony, much to Alexis’s break-stuff delight, and then wonders aloud if he’s killed anyone.

The cinematic Our Lady racks up a lower body count than its source text; Fernando isn’t quite so dizzily enamored of the boy’s stunted conscience—it’s less a fuck-the-world turn-on than an existential puzzle—and Alexis is a more discriminating executioner. Fernando’s black-humor aphorisms and bitterly funny tirades against God, church, state, and breeding (poured out as interior monologues in the book) amount to a succession of impromptu stand-up routines. Captive audience Alexis can only snigger indulgently as the merry nihilist pair roam the streets—and often end up at Mass. All of Alexis’s fellow sicarios, in fact, whet their appetites for destruction with devout Catholic reverence: They pray to patron María Auxiliadora (the Lady of the title) and speak of “blessed bullets.” Even the grimy local pool hall has a mounted statue of the Virgin Mary.

Chaotic as it is, life in Medellín can get dull. “What do we do now?” Alexis asks when the couple returns from an afternoon stroll. “Go back out again,” Fernando shrugs. Alexis doesn’t survive the walking tours, of course, and Fernando mourns him for as long as it takes to find a replacement: Wilmar (Juan David Restrepo), a sicario who looks like he could be Alexis’s brother. As Fernando soon discovers, the two are indeed connected.

The film’s loping quotidian rhythms, encompassing both boredom and explosive violence, spring from guerrilla-documentary roots. Scouted and filmed over the summer and autumn of 1999, Our Lady was shot in high-definition video on the same surreally dangerous streets it depicts. (Schroeder, who spent his childhood in Colombia, was anonymously threatened with kidnapping and traveled to and from location in armored cars.) As Vallejo lends his name to his protagonist, so the film’s younger actors share a background with the assassins they portray. Ballesteros was 16 and wanted for kidnapping and armed assault at the time of filming; he and Restrepo both live in the poor, crime-infested hilltop comunas on the northern outskirts of the city. (Victor Gaviria recruited actors from the same area for Rodrigo D: No Future and Rose Seller.) The performances can be stiff, but a kinetic mix of anxiety, dread, and numbed resignation is always palpable. Fernando and Alexis have no evident physical rapport (Schroeder skittishly dispenses with their sexual relationship via a time-lapse quickie reflected at a distance through a mirror), and yet the film conveys, with urgency and surprising tenderness, the momentary strength of their hermetic, defiantly present-tense connection. Like everything else in Our Lady of the Assassins, it burns out and it fades away.

The week’s other man-boy bond is forged on the streets of suburban Long Island, though L.I.E. is confused and disjointed where Our Lady is clear-eyed and purposeful. Commercial veteran Michael Cuesta’s feature debut—flaunting the candy colors and editing jumps of your given Microsoft ad—begins as a juvenile-delinquency throwdown, veers toward gay coming-of-age romance, does a U-turn to explore the unlikely platonic affair between a pedophile (Brian Cox) and the pretty blond thing he scarcely touches, and then screeches to a halt at an oedipal fork in the road. Much of the emotional heft hinges on the 15-year-old protagonist’s ignorance that his contractor father is wanted by the FBI, despite newspapers, television, and the hundreds of catty teenagers with whom he attends high school. Especially once the fair-haired virgin starts reciting Walt Whitman to a grotesquely smitten Cox, L.I.E. is preposterous enough to entertain.

The second-highest-grossing film in Thai box-office history, The Iron Ladies goes to heel-snapping lengths to hold the audience’s attention while it chronicles the agony and ecstasy of the 1996 Thai men’s national-champ volleyball team, which was composed mostly of gay men, cross-dressers, and transgenders. Director Yongyoot Thongkongtoon says in the press notes that “to get my message across it was better to use straight actors playing gays than to use gay actors because I didn’t want my audiences focusing on the ‘gayness’ of my cast.” Thus we get a bunch of straight actors focusing on the “gayness” of their characters, mincing and lisping and melodramatically breaking nails, all in the besmirched name of tolerance.

Click here to read Gary Indiana’s review of Our Lady of the Assassins, the novel.